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Q&A with Stephen J. Pyne

Amid tragedy and destruction, Northern California's fires present an opportunity

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Stephen J. Pyne is a regents professor in the school of Life Studies at Arizona State University, and one of America's foremost experts on fire and fire history. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Between Two Fires: A Fire History of Contemporary America and Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire, which won the Forest History Society's best book award. He has twice been awarded National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, twice been a fellow at the National Humanities Center and received a MacArthur fellowship. Before his academic career, Pyne worked for the forest fire crew on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for 15 seasons.

I spoke to him Oct. 27 about the lessons of Northern California's fires and the opportunities that lie ahead. We have to act quickly, he says.

"There is a political ecology to fires, and it's the same as slash-and-burn agriculture," he told me. "That is to say, you can plant successfully in the ash, but if you wait a year, you probably can't. And if you wait two years, the weeds have taken over and you have to start it again. You have essentially six to 12 months, or the opportunity is gone."

Stett Holbrook

What struck you most about Northern California's fires?

There were three things that really caught my interest. One, of course, is the scale of damage. This is double the housing loss from the Oakland fire [of 1991], which most people had considered the upper limit of what was possible. And the loss of life—we haven't seen this scale of loss of life for more than a century.

The second thing is what we might call the collateral damage of fire: smoke. Smoke has been of growing interest internationally for many years. And for the last couple of years, it's really gotten around in the fire community that smoke is more than just an inevitable side effect; it's a public health issue. It's more than just a seasonal nuisance. It's not something that just affects rural or semi-rural communities. It really is a major issue.

The third is the likely cause, which seems to be power lines. When I first heard of this whole bust of fires, I thought, "This is the signature of an electrical storm. This is what you have with lightning storms." It's not confirmed, but it's looking like this was an electrical storm—but one of our own making, with power lines. Power line fires are becoming a major threat. They have been an issue in Southern California for a long time and in other places. We are starting to see power lines failing, sparking, trees falling on them. It's really insidious because the fires start under the absolute worst conditions: high, dry winds. The liability issues are just going to go through the roof here.

Have we entered a new era of fire in California?

I don't think we've entered a new era. In some ways it's the same era. The "California style" of fire escalated after the World War II housing boom. This is more of the same. What we're seeing is a ratcheting up of the damages. Climate change is probably contributing here, but we can't just lay all of this on climate change. That's just a way of evading all the social decisions we've made about how we live and where we build. Fire integrates all these things. It's good news, bad news. It's good news that it's not something new. The bad news is we've seen this over and over again. It's getting worse. It's intensifying.

What are the lessons from the Oakland fire?

That was a real stunner. The United States had not had an urban conflagration since it happened across the bay in 1906. These things don't happen anymore, and so why was it happening here? A lot of the attention went to Oakland as a kind of troubled municipality. In many ways, that was just a manifestation of its various pathologies, and it doesn't really generalize [to other fires]. This was not the advent of something new. It's just a peculiar thing. It was a horrific event. Startling. But for most people, it did not generalize.

But I think with what we're seeing now maybe with Santa Rosa, I think it will [generalize], particularly if you pair it with Gatlinburg, Tenn., or the big fires in Texas in 2011 and others.

These fires were for a long time a California quirk, something only happening on the Left Coast. And it really didn't have anything to do with the rest of the county. And that's not true now. It's becoming a national narrative. It's all over the West. I think what we're seeing now is the fires are going where the houses are. At that point, it's a national story.

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